Strategic Planning in Uncertain Times

Kevin Langford

Vice President, Human Resources at ExpressJet Airlines

Learning Objectives

Today’s world is full of uncertainty. COVID-19 has completely changed the way the world looks, feels, and operates. The impact on a vast majority of businesses— small to large, can easily be seen. Each day seems to present a new set of challenges and can feel like a complete change in direction. An HR professional can feel overwhelmed if there are changes to an organization’s strategic plan. Learn how to better manage these changes in strategy without completely abandoning your original plan.

Key Takeaways:

  • Flexibility and Adaptability are paramount

  • Utilize the foundations of your strategic plan to change rather than abandoning the entire plan

  • Pivot without losing the long term strategy

"Abandoning all strategic thinking and acting in the now pushes a team backwards, erasing all the growth and advancement."

Kevin Langford

Vice President, Human Resources at ExpressJet Airlines


Good morning.

My name is Kevin Langford. I’m the Vice President of human resources at ExpressJet Airlines. Today I’m going to talk about strategic planning in uncertain times. today’s world is full of uncertainty. COVID-19 has completely changed the way the world looks, feels and operates. The impact on a vast majority of businesses small to large can be easily seen. Each day seems to present a new set of challenges and can feel like a complete change in direction. an HR professional can feel overwhelmed if there are changes to an organization’s strategic plan. ExpressJet Airlines a North American regional airline exclusively providing services to United Airlines, things are no different. At the beginning of 2020, or organizational strategy was laser focused on three main objectives, growth, culture and improvement. In q1 of 2020, we acquired nearly 40 additional aircraft and forecasted 50% growth. Now at the beginning of 2021, express jet had to change course. By the end of 2020, we had wound down our flying partnership with United Airlines COVID-19, and its Fallout had been a formidable adversary for all HR professionals. However, a strong and dynamic strategy is your best armor to adapt and survive. So how does an HR professional manage through these tumultuous times and still manage to be a strategic partner? It’s easy, especially during uncertain times to abandon your strategy and turn your attention to the immediate needs of an organization. After all, the likelihood the needs of the organization will be the same in three months, is extremely unlikely. However, ignoring your strategic plan, or worse, masquerading a task list of strategy is a recipe for disaster. The HR function has come a long way over the past few decades, transforming from a merely administrative function to a trusted advisor and partner. Abandon all strategic thinking and acting in the now pushes a team backwards, erasing all the growth and advancement. Additionally, abandoning a strategic plan can have dire consequences on the organization. Engagement can suffer, morale can drop, and the organization’s most important asset, its people can feel ignored. during times of uncertainty, I try to take a moment to gain perspective on the situation trying to ignore the noise. This is usually accomplished early on a Saturday or Sunday morning or late in the evening. When the noise and chaos chaos of the day is less intense. It is during these times I can focus I can assess I can plan. I’m able to utilize as our strategic plan that we envisioned when the world was more stable, and determine what parts of our strategy are relevant, working or need to adapt the pieces that are steadfast make up my foundation, continuing to lay the path forward. For example, growth strategies quickly adapt to survival strategies, culture, engagement and continuous improvement often remain. By understanding the foundations on my strategy, I can incorporate the changes in direction and see how they impact the strategic approach and adjust accordingly. With so much unknown during uncertain times, leaders must have a dynamic approach, often with multiple paths to manage and adapt to multiple change. However, the foundational objectives are steadfast, uncertain times presented an easy opportunity to deviate from the strategy. But don’t listen to the noise. Focus on your strategy. Use your foundation to thrive to adapt and to survive. It is worth noting that in situations where no pieces of your foundation remain, the building path forward can be a bit more challenging. However, if the long term foundational objectives are in place, many times you’re able to find portions of your strategy that can remain as part of the foundational approach. And I’ll tell you a little bit more about expressjet and how I utilize this approach through the course of the past year. First some history on expressjet express that has a historical legacy dating back to 1949. When it was a province town Boston airlines Atlantic se and express jet MERS is a subsidiary of skywest airlines operating together in 2012. In 2019 expressjet separated from sky West after an acquisition by manna air. From there they flew operated as United Express and flew approximately a fleet of 140 50 seat aircraft and having 3000 employees. We serve more than 100 airports in the United States, Canada and Mexico and became the world’s largest er j 145. Operator in February of 2020, after an acquisition of 36 aircraft from trans states airlines COVID then reduced the flying by over 90%. And then July 2020, United provided notification that they were ending its contract with expressjet.

And we flew our final flight for United Express on September 30 2020. We are now in a stage we’re looking for additional Floreana opportunities while trying to survive as a company. At the beginning of 2020, I was only two months into my tenure with expressjet. However, the objectives for the Human Resources team were clear. First, we needed to achieve the talent acquisition targets by improving and integrating the function in the strategy. When I arrived, talent acquisition was based in the business with no connection to HR. The result was a segmented, unorganized hiring process that was inefficient, and had business lines duplicating time, efforts and activities to achieve the same goal. Bringing on new employees. The industry was fighting a war for talent, but in the pilot and mechanic space, improvements were needed if we were going to be successful to meet our hiring objectives for that year. Additionally, all the functional lines with an HR were worked in silos, and there was no too little communication between the groups. This resulted in multiple inefficiencies Not to mention a severely disjointed team. To address the issues the first priority for 2020 was the integration of the talent acquisition team into HR, which was physically completed in late January, we’re working through the cultural embedment of a team who had aligned with the business line into one that needed to focus on partnering with multiple business lines and adjusting their approaches accordingly. To begin working on improving the silos within the function, it was imperative to engage the entire team on the strategic goals and transitional objectives for the team in the coming year. This was accomplished by hosting an HR townhall for the new 50 person, HR team, in person and on video conference. By broadly communicating to the entire HR team in a joint Town Hall, it became apparent that this was the first time the team had participated in something like this that didn’t involve news of layoffs, a merger or an acquisition. It was the first time in many years that the team had felt as if they had some sense of direction, and what they were trying to focus on to accomplish. We also needed to improve and solidify the company culture, including our internal and external engagement. After arriving at Express jet, I quickly realized that the culture was a traditional command and control organization, one that resulted in employees who are hesitant to step out of their roles, offer opinions and challenge the status quo. As a result, complacency and fear ran rampant in the organization. An example of this behavior was demonstrated early in my tenure at expressjet. I was in a meeting with one of my directors, and one of his managers discussing some research, his employee took on a part of a policy initiative. The result led to a discussion about the direction we would head as an organization, I asked the employee what we were going to do going forward. She responded, whatever you would like to do. I was surprised with a response. She had done the research and was the subject matter experts. But her plan was only do what I thought was the path forward. I wanted to let her know that she was what she thought was the best approach and what the positive and negatives were of each option. After the meeting, she had a conversation with her director and said, What should I tell him? Her director told her tell him what you believe. Tell him what you feel. That’s what he wants to know. She’d never been approached that way before and it surprised her. She gave me her opinions the next day and we talked through the options and landed on a decision. This was the start of empowering her as an employee. Over the past year this woman’s gone from hesitant to opine on anything, never email me directly to regularly touching base with me on things she sees as potential issues and potential pitfalls. She’s become one of my most valuable employees use similar techniques and strategies both within the HR team as well the greater leadership team. And over my time with expressjet have seen the CEO and other executives take similar approaches. As a result, my behavior and coaching and seeing the benefits of a more engaged workforce that enjoys having their voices heard. There was also a huge lack of engagement outside of headquarters, those working in our airline bases, which accounted for approximately 80% of our employees felt little to no connection to what was going on in the organization. To help combat that we put in a large scale communication and engagement plan, specifically focusing on reaching out towards those employees. Lastly, we had the goal of continuously improving by identifying, optimizing, improving operations and activities. The expressjet system was one full of manual processes and inefficiency. One of the best examples I can provide was our flight travel request process. each employee had to go online and find flight information they wanted input the flight number date time departure arrival airports and send that to the travel team for a response. The travel representative then comp copied the detail onto United’s travel request,

subsequently submitting it for approval. This kind of process existed in multiple places across the organization, and led to an organization that had many opportunities for missed items or mistakes due to so many hands touching every single transaction. So I challenged the team to assist in the identification of these duplicative and inefficient processes, so that we can work to improve both the process as well as the employee experience over the coming year. First potential impact on our strategic plan came in February. This came in the form of the company acquiring approximately 40 additional aircraft from trans states airlines, making us the world’s largest er j 145. operator. Our strategic goals were going to be even more important, as our hiring targets now increased to growing the employee population by 50% in 12, to 18 months. When I took a pause, and to gain perspective on the impact of the change in our strategy, I found we were in place where our objectives aligned with the organization perfectly, and we are well positioned to scale upward to meet the needs of the organization, which meant we did not need to make major modifications to our strategy and objectives. However, only one month later COVID-19 brought everything to a screeching halt and changed everything. COVID-19 cost travel, especially business travel to collapse. As a regional airline business, travel is the lifeblood of our business, and seeing our flying activity dropped by 90 plus percent is devastating. As a result, the organization had no choice but to adjust our plan. But I held true to how to best manage these environmental impacts. When travel demand collapse, our plan of growth was tabled the focus on talent acquisition, our number one priority for 2020 vanished, however the other pieces remained. Our company culture was going to be forever changed, working remotely would immediately change our culture. And it was quite uncomfortable for many at least initially. Employee empowerment and engagement came to the forefront. And leaders who hovered and micromanage their employees found themselves asking for guidance on how they can ensure their employees are active and working at their machines. When he or she couldn’t see them. The HR team worked to engage our employees through frequent remote working pointers and provided weekly COVID-19 updates, as well as counseling leaders about letting go of the control and trusting of their staff. Eventually, remote working became the new normal and everyone was forced to adjust. Continuous Improvement originally meant simplification to maximize profitability, but a fundamental shift was required. Immediately we were forced to focus on survival meaning aggressive cost savings and optimization. We accelerated ideas for simplification and cost savings, forcing us to question business as usual processes. The no longer made financial sense. eliminating waste now meant process improvement, but also a quick assessment of all the cost efficiencies that existed. Growing over the course of years and finding every way we could save $1. Then in May, the death of George Floyd pull inclusion and diversity initiatives, something that was part of our cultural engagement strategy plan for later in the year two center stage, we found ourselves questioning where we stood asking whether we as a company were combating or contributing to the problem. We needed to immediately accelerate our plans to assess our culture. We launched an anonymous inclusion and diversity survey to employees to obtain their views of the company and assess our progress on inclusion and diversity initiatives. The survey resonated with employees and the highest completion percentage of any release in recent memory, a testament to not only how passionate our employees felt about the issue, but also how our remote engagement strategy was working with our employee base. Just as we began analyzing the results of the survey and putting together our action plan, our strategy changed in a way that none of us were prepared for United Airlines our flying partner had decided to wind down our flying operations by the end of September, only two aircrafts flew the kind of jet that we operated Express jet, the world’s largest and commute air who only had about 35 aircraft was business travel demand forecast being where it was for the foreseeable future, united to determine that it was easier to grow an airline to 42, the 40 or 50 aircraft level that it needed and to try to shrink one aggressively. That was three times the size. Again, we need to adapt to our strategic plan. But our core values will remain steadfast. Our culture that we were working to improve and embed in the organization now became the most important thing we would do this year. We now had the responsibility of assisting 1000s of employees that we’re going to be exiting the organization through furloughs and terminations. Helping as many as possible feel that the company guided them through the transition as smoothly as possible and our commitment to our culture and Engagement Foundation’s would be critical.

We focused on communications and resources for employees. We hosted town halls as well as resume and LinkedIn and interviewing workshops. We brought in financial planning resources as well as resources to help employees navigate filing for unemployment. Obviously, the wind down is not what any of us wanted or expected, but we needed to focus on informing the departing employees of how this transition process worked for them, and hope that every employee left feeling respected and appreciated. This is our sense and duty as an HR professional. With 2020s relentless environment, flexibility and adaptability were a necessity, a requirement for survival. As an HR professional, a dynamic foundational plan allowed me not only to keep positive, but more importantly keep my sanity, I was able to focus, assess and plan. Often within days the needs of the organization changed. The pre pandemic vision for building guiding and enhancing the company culture, as well as engagement and continuous improvement unfortunately, looks very different today. Despite the need to wind down our flying operations, our foundations held true just with a different perspective. If we had abandoned our strategic plan and focused only on the immediate task, or organization would have stumbled and suffered through this crisis, our foundation enabled us to stay fluid, refocusing on priorities and deliverables as a result, and allowed us to one effectively implement improvements while focusing on the cost savings to wind down our operations efficiently and seamlessly as possible. And three keep true to our culture focusing on our employee transitions. 2020 was probably one of the most important and impactful times we will have in our careers. And it’s continued to be that way in 2021. It’s during this uncertainty, it’s easy to focus on the immediate task, losing perspective and abandoning the strategy until times are less tumultuous. However, Benjamin Disraeli said Change is inevitable change is constant. Over the past year, abandoning the strategy until times were more stable, would have meant abandoning strategy altogether and waiting for the call.

Thank you.

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